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‘This country has no freedom!’: how Thailand’s punks are railing against the junta

Written by Thailand News

“It’s been four years, motherfucker!” – this is how a group of Thai punks promoted their gig, earlier this month, marking the fourth anniversary of military rule in the country.

The provocative slogan, directed at junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha, helped the event’s Facebook page go viral, piquing the interest of pro-democracy activists and putting the small underground scene in the national spotlight.

A larger than usual crowd showed up at the concert, which was held at a monument commemorating student-led protests in 1973. Those protests succeeded in bringing down a despised military dictatorship – but only after troops opened fire on the crowds, killing at least 77.

Such atrocities are a recurring horror in Thailand, where the state also killed its own people in 1976, 1992 and in 2010, when around 90 pro-democracy “red shirt” protesters were killed during military crackdowns led by General Prayuth.

However, in 2014, Prayuth sat back and watched as rival protests against the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra, whom the red shirts supported, paralysed Bangkok. When he finally did intervene, it was not to support the government but to seize power himself. Although the junta has its supporters, opposition is widespread and only kept in check by oppression. Elections have been promised for 2019, but even if they do go ahead, the signs are that Prayuth is aiming to use them as a way to legitimise his power and remain in control.

Thailand punk band Blood Soaked Street of Social Decay, with Kitikea ‘Pure Punk’ Kanpim on back-up vocals.

Thailand punk band Blood Soaked Street of Social Decay, with Kitikea ‘Pure Punk’ Kanpim on back-up vocals. Photograph: Tawan Pongphat

Outside the gig, uniformed police stood guard but allowed people to move in and out freely. Undercover agents worked inside, filming and taking photos. Among the crowd of punk kids were some stalwarts from the pro-democracy movement, keen to take part in any activity against the junta, even if it meant subjecting their ears to noisy and strange music. I recognised a group of older women – referred to as “aunties” in Thai — whom I knew to be red shirt activists.

One of them, a nurse in her 60s from just outside Bangkok, told me she had no idea about punk – Thai country music is more her style – but she came along because she’s angry about the state of the country. “It’s been four years of military rule now,” she complained. “We need elections.”

Listen to the ShockShuck

As bands such as Shock Shuck and Drunk All Day treated the crowd to three-chord riffs and four-letter expletives aimed at Prayuth, I chatted to one of the event organisers.

“The Thai punk scene in the past has only cared about partying,” hesays. “I organised this event because I think punk should be rebellious. I care about freedom and rights.”

The thrash metal band Killing Fields certainly don’t play party music. Their lyrics and imagery deal with dark periods of Thai history, such as the massacre of students at Thammasat University in 1976, which is still quite a taboo subject in Thailand. A gruesome photo from the atrocity will be familiar to fans of the US punk band Dead Kennedys.

Thai punk fans.Thai punk fans. Photograph: Tawan Pongphat

Blood Soaked Street of Social Decay and Anarthipathai (Thai for anarchy) aren’t light entertainment either. Both bands played blistering sets of politically charged grindcore that got the crowd slam-dancing, with dozens of pairs of Dr Martens, Converse and Vans stomping furiously on an anti-Prayuth banner laid out on the ground.

Mhee, the drummer and spokesperson of Blood Soaked Street of Social Decay – often styled as BxSxSxSxD – is pessimistic about Thailand’s political prospects. “The whole world is moving on but we are still stuck in the same place,” he told me, referring to the country’s vicious cycle of elections, coups, protests and massacres. He distrusts all forms of authority but concedes that “democracy is the ‘least worst’ system because it allows for accountability. With a dictatorship, you can’t check on them or criticise them.”

Music hasn’t been this political in Thailand since the tumult of the 1970s, when bands such as Caravan grew out of the popular uprising and pioneered a wave of socially conscious folk-rock, known in Thai as “songs for life”. But after the trauma of the 1976 student massacre, the progressive movement grew weary and the counterculture soon faded away.

Since the 80s, Thai music has been dominated by bland pop and soft rock, churning out love songs with the same sugary vocal delivery. When youth cultures were imported from overseas – punk, metal, indie, hip-hop – the style was imitated flawlessly but the sense of rebellion often seemed to have been lost along the way. “Thai kids just aren’t interested in politics” is a common refrain.

But a deep and protracted political crisis has convulsed Thailand for more than a decade now. And while the younger generation seemed uninterested at first, there are signs that this could be changing. Since the 2014 coup, young Thais have been bravely leading the small but determined resistance movement against it.

And if punk isn’t your thing, then politics has been popping up in other youthful cultural forms, too: a quarter of a million people follow the satirical comic strips of “kai meow” (cat’s balls) on Facebook; a vibrant street-art scene has started targeting the junta with murals; hobbyists make politically themed designer toys that can sell out in minutes, and a young gender activist recently made a retro-style board game that mocks the country’s regressive politics.

Fans of the Thailand punk band Drunk All Day. 
Fans of the Thailand punk band Drunk All Day. Photograph: Tawan PongphatSuch examples might not be indicative of what the average young Thai is doing, but that’s the point. These are the creatives, the social influencers and trend setters – being subversive is what the cool kids are doing.Mhee thinks the internet has given people a greater voice. “Young people have always been interested in politics,” he says. “But now they have a space to convey what they think to the public, so other people can support their opinion.”

Social media certainly helped the bands at the “four years” gig reach a wider audience; first when promoting the concert, and then afterwards, when clips and photos of the event’s dramatic climax went viral.

As headliners Anarthipathai finished their set, attempts were made to set the anti-Prayuth banner on fire, but it proved remarkably resilient to the flames – a perfect metaphor for a country struggling to rid itself of a stubborn dictator.

To accommodate the delay, the band moved effortlessly from D-beat to slow psych jam, giving two punks more time to douse the banner in lighter fluid to get it burning. When the flames finally engulfed the dictator’s face, the crowd cheered and the show was over.

The police immediately swooped in to make arrests. A dozen or so punks were shepherded on to the back of a police pickup while the crowd berated the officers.

“Only in Thailand! This country has no freedom!” screeched one of the red shirt aunties.

“Are you proud of yourself? Are you proud of the job you do?” shouted a young punk woman at the police.

The atmosphere was tense but as the vehicle pulled out, a grinning punk in the back shouted: “Democracy for ever!” and a huge cheer filled the air, followed by laughter. Punk’s been through a lot over the decades but it’s not dead yet, at least not for the people who still believe in it – and the same is true for Thai democracy.

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